Fresh from University of Chicago Press is a nice, nuanced read by Northwestern historian Carl Smith, The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City.

The famous 1909 plan came from the city’s business elite, of which Burnham himself was a member. And yet, Smith writes,

“The Plan speaks with surprising directness of the city’s need and right to place limits on speculators and landowners. It does so not only when it states that the lakefront ‘by right belongs to the people,’ but also when it defends the public appropriation of real estate needed to widen streets and to eradicate threats to sanitation and health. ‘It is no attack on private property,’ the plan contends, ‘to argue that society has the inherent right to protect itself against abuses.’ If society does not exercise this right, the planners [i.e. businessmen] warned, it might be necessary to resort to socialism in some form. Chicago, unlike London, had not yet reached the point at which the city must intervene and provide housing for people living in unaaceptable conditions. Unless timely action was taken, however, the Plan predicts that ‘such a course will be required in common justice to men and women so degraded by long life in the slums that they have lost all power of caring for themselves.'”

Leave aside the condescension, and the irony (in the subsequent 97 years Chicago’s done public housing, and undone it — the book to read, Where Are Poor People To Live?, is also new), and the eerie voice of a long-moribund brand of Republicanism, what strikes me in this passage is how important the specter of socialism was in keeping the excesses of capitalism in check. It’s been at least a generation now since that specter was real, and the excesses keep piling up, extending even to brazen attempts to undo collective protections like insurance (which right-wingers would replace with individual medical savings accounts) and rudimentary elements of fairness like the estate tax (which respects the principle of a fair start for all individuals).

I’m not a fan of the city’s now-aborted big-box minimum-wage ordinance. But in this light I’m scratching my head. Even an ill-conceived opposition is better than none. Maybe capitalism itself needs competition.